Your teacher or professor may have said not to write in the second person. They may have forgotten to mention it. Either way, I’m telling you that you should not write a formal essay in the second person. I feel very strongly about this, but I guarantee that I do not feel as strongly about it as your teacher or professor will if you turn in an essay written in the second person.
What is the second person?
It’s when the writer uses a second person pronoun, specifically you or yours, to address the reader. Therefore, when I wrote my first paragraph to this post, I was writing using second person pronouns.
You’re probably asking yourself, “Why, Banger, must we not do this?”
There are a few reasons:
- First, it lends itself to informality. This site is written in an informal tone, and while that is fine for something like this, for a formal essay you need to maintain an appropriate tone throughout your work.
- Second, it can weaken your argument, because it sounds like you are telling your reader what to think, rather than informing them or persuading them.
- Third, stylistically, I tell my students not to talk about their essay in their essay. Do not say, “In my essay, I will show you why left-handed cats are superior to butterflies.” No no, do not do that. Instead, this is one time when the old saw of “Show; don’t tell” is absolutely correct. Don’t tell us what you’re going to show us, but instead get right in there, get your hands dirty, and lay out a compelling argument for us to assess.
Are there times when you can use the second person?
Absolutely. It can be an effective mechanism in creative writing. It’s good if you’re giving instructions. It’s handy if you are cultivating a casual connection with the reader. Otherwise, no. Just don’t do it.
What am I supposed to do instead?
That’s where phrasing* comes into play. Rather than saying, “In my essay, I will show you why left-handed laser cats are superior to butterflies,” you might say the following in a research essay, “Studies have demonstrated that left-handed laser cats are superior to butterflies in every conceivable manner.” Or, if you are writing an opinion essay, you could say, “It is my firm opinion that left-handed laser cats are substantively superior to butterflies for a variety of reasons.” In both cases you’re avoiding the second person, you’re setting the tone of your essay (research v. opinion), and you’re setting up for a thesis statement that left-handed laser cats are the most fab things going, whereas butterflies are meh. Honest.
* Are we still doing that?